The winner

Back when my kids played Tee Ball and I was their coach, my keen eye for athleticism spotted something important: generally speaking, Tee Ball players can’t catch or throw.

And if a four-year-old did somehow manage to throw a ball accurately it would take a miracle rivaling Jesus turning water into wine for another four-year-old to catch it.

If I recall correctly – and I often don’t – there was a run-limit-per-inning and that’s the only reason some of those innings ever ended. Without that run limit we might still be out there today waiting for a bunch of kids who are now in their mid-thirties to get three outs.

So being a certified, gold-plated genius I came up with a plan: I would not let my players throw the ball.

Instead of errant throws winding up under a Dodge minivan in the church parking lot while opposing players scampered around the bases, I’d tell my players to hold the ball and let the batter have first base.

Same thing with the next batter; just hold onto the ball and now we’d have runners on first and second and – this is the genius part of my plan – a force on every base.

After that I’d tell my players to pick up a batted ball and go step on any base for a force out.

By eliminating the throwing part of the game – a part my players couldn’t do – I turned Tee Ball into a game of Knock The Ball Down And Race A Runner To A Base, which they could do.

Once the kids got the hang of it, we were putting shutout innings on the scoreboard and winning all our games. When my team won their final game I had to tell them they’d won because none of them were paying attention to the score.

After I told them they’d won, here’s what one kid said:

“Do we still get soft drinks?”

That kid’s comment should have taught me a lesson: at that age the players didn’t really give a shit whether they won or lost.

To win a crappy plastic trophy that not one of those kids could find today (it would be kinda sad if they could) I made sure they didn’t accomplish the one thing they should have been learning that summer: how to catch and throw a ball.  

But that was alright – I was a goddamn winner.

A lesson not learned

As my kids continued to grow I continued to coach. I was lucky enough to hang around professional baseball players and wanted to teach my kids what those players were teaching me.

When I grew up if you sucked at baseball they didn’t send you to a hitting coach or pitching coach, they sent you to the end of the bench and if you really sucked they sent you home.

So being around big league ballplayers and finding out there was a right way to throw a ball and swing a bat was mind-blowing. You could learn those techniques and actually get better – something I didn’t know was possible.

So being the Best Dad in the World (I was given a coffee cup that confirmed it) I was going to make sure my kids had the benefit of all that professional baseball knowledge.

I’d drag my kids out into the heat and humidity a couple times a week and practice. I’d sweat my ass off while hitting thousands of grounders and fly balls and throwing thousands of batting practice pitches.

But it was OK, I was doing it for my kids and they were going to be winners, too.

Then one day – can’t remember why – I got frustrated and threw a bag of baseballs. My son Paul – a kid I love more than the moon and the sun in the sky – was on the verge of tears when he said:

“Dad, we’re doing this for you.”

That made me feel lower than an ant’s asshole, assuming ants have them. All the time I thought I was doing something for them, my kids were actually doing something for me.

They gotta love it and you can’t love it for them

After that I asked big league players what they were like as kids; did they play baseball on their own or did someone have to drag them out to do it?

Without exception, they all said they loved it.

They’d play baseball all day, whether anyone asked them to or not, and only quit playing when it got too dark to see the ball. Turns out, to be a really good baseball player it helps if you really love baseball.

So that led to some soul-searching (which in my case required a microscope and tweezers) and I realized I never had to ask my kids to draw, read, play music or get on a computer. They did those things because they loved them and pretty much only played baseball when I forced them to.

So there was the lesson:

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t teach it to turn a 6-4-3 double play.  

Paul is now a music producer in LA and has a Gold and Platinum Record, Michael is a writer and has published a couple books and Matt is currently finishing up designing his second video game.

They’re all winners in their chosen field even though those fields don’t include foul lines.

What sports gives you

Major league ballplayers have kids too and when they get the chance to be there when those kids play sports, those big league players have pretty much the same reaction:

Parents are fucking nuts.

To get to the big leagues those players have gone through an incredibly tough grind and they know how few players will ever sign a professional contract, much less spend one second in the big leagues.

Generally speaking the pros think parents ought to back off and let their kids play and have fun because the odds are those kids are not going to make it to the big leagues, the NBA or the NFL.

So if there isn’t a paycheck in their future, why should kids play sports?

One summer I was coaching my son Matt’s baseball team and I urged the kids to play catch every day, it was the only way to get better. So I’ve got Matt out sweating like a Nazi in Nuremberg when he said he was pretty sure his teammates weren’t practicing like he was.

When I told that story to Chris Egelston – a pitcher who made it as far as Double A in the Baltimore system – he pointed out that if baseball taught Matt it was good to keep his promises, then baseball gave him a lot.

And that’s the way to look at it.

Even if your kid never signs a pro contract or gets a college scholarship, sports can teach them about teamwork, sacrifice and caring about something other than themselves.

And if that’s not enough, I got a couple trophies you can have.

Because I’m a goddamn winner.